With every conceivable form of computer-animated life — from the Neolithic mammals of the ICE AGE movies to the singin' and surfin' penguins of HAPPY FEET and SURF'S UP — cluttering the screen, the rare, truly special animated movie stands a good chance of getting lost. (Witness the smart and very funny OVER THE HEDGE, a movie aimed more at greedy adults than easily entertained children.) Let's hope Disney-Pixar's muscle ensures that this doesn’t happen to Brad Bird's (THE IRON GIANT, THE INCREDIBLES) third feature, about a common country rat who dreams of becoming a world-class chef.
Remy (voice of Patton Oswalt) and his provincial rat brethren may be vermin, but as far as he's concerned, that's no reason to settle for garbage: Why feast on slop when the fields of provincial France are filled with wild mushrooms and fragrant herbs? Or when saffron and bits of cheese can be nicked from the cottage where Remy first learned to mix such ingredients into marvelous new flavors by watching the late celebrity chef Auguste Gusteau (Brad Garrett) on TV? Before his death, Gusteau deeply offended the haughty world of French haute cuisine in general — and cadaverous food critic Anton Ego (wonderfully voiced by Peter O'Toole) in particular — by publishing the scandalously egalitarian "Anybody Can Cook," the motto Remy takes to heart. When Remy and the rest of his colony are forced to flee their homes and escape into the sewer, Remy floats all the way to Paris — and emerges right in front of his hero's legendary restaurant, Gusteau's. Once a five-star jewel and now a three-star eatery — the downgrade was largely due to a scathing review from Ego — Gusteau's has slipped even further under the auspices of petite kitchen martinet Skinner (Ian Holm) and his dull menu. A gastronomically adventurous rat with a discriminating palate is exactly what the place needs: Egged on by the spirit of the great Gusteau, who hovers about his head like a rotund Tinker Bell, Remy makes an arrangement with the restaurant's garbage boy, Linguini (Lou Romano), an aspiring chef with no talent whatsoever. Yanking on Linguini's hair from beneath his hat, Remy can manipulate Linguini's movements like a puppeteer and direct him to concoct delicious soups and miraculous sauces. Suddenly, Gusteau's is on its way back to the top and Linguini is the city's rising star — so long as no one knows who's really in the kitchen.
There's a lot of plot for a simple movie about an epicurean rodent, and despite its charms the film begins to feel slightly overextended by the time an amorous Linguini agonizes over whether to tell sous chef Collette (Janeane Garofalo) that the rat under his hat is the real kitchen magician of Gusteau's. Luckily, the film rallies for a bang-up third act with the arrival of Anton Ego, who's finally willing to give Gusteau's another chance. Everything builds to a wonderful Proustian moment of recovered memory and sensory bliss that captures the essence of culinary art while serving as the high point of a clever, ingeniously animated film filled with many shining moments. leave a comment --Ken Fox